Tragic swimmer Fran Crippen had fears before race

The US Olympic hopeful had concerns about the number of swimmers taking part in an open water event in Fujairah days before he died in the race.

FUJAIRAH // Days before he died in an open water race in Fujairah, the US Olympic hopeful Fran Crippen told his coach he was concerned at the number of swimmers in the race.

Indeed, so concerned was he that in a letter written weeks earlier, he expressed to USA Swimming, the governing body for the sport in the US, his worries about the general lack of support for the athletes, including a reliance on volunteers.

Crippen, 26, died from heat exhaustion and dehydration at a Fina 10-kilometre World Cup Open in Fujairah, according to a medical report obtained by his family.

Richard Shoulberg, a coach at Germantown Academy in Pennsylvania, has pledged to spend the rest of his life making open water swimming safe.

"I will do everything and anything to ensure that every family in every country will be protected," said Mr Shoulberg, who had coached Crippen for 20 years.

"You have no idea how heartbroken we all are. We know that Fina and the host country did not protect the athletes. It's that sad. Someone has to be accountable for it."

The UAE Swimming Federation organised the event under Fina, the sport's world governing body. Fina and USA Swimming have launched investigations.

Mr Shoulberg helped Crippen draft a letter to USA Swimming just weeks before his death that listed the swimmer's concerns about a lack of support for international athletes. Among his top concerns were reliance on volunteers at feeding stations.

"Fran was very, very concerned that US swimming was not doing enough to protect the athletes and that you were going on the mercy of a volunteer from all over the world who you don't know," said Mr Shoulberg.

Another concern was the lack of financial support for travelling athletes and coaches. Crippen was given US$400 (Dh1,469) for his trip to cover all expenses.

Ayman Saad, the executive director of the UAE Swimming Federation, confirmed that the race venue had been changed from Sharjah to Fujairah about 10 days before the competition. "We made the race in a better location, everything was prepared and ready," he said.

"The venue has been changed every year. Nobody complained to us about it, from Fina or the swimmers, so why now?"

The Fujairah International Marine Club was asked to host the event only five days beforehand, said Major Ahmed Ibrahim, the club's managing director.

Mr Shoulberg expressed concern at the low number of safety boats and the high number of swimmers.

Mr Saad said there were 82 athletes in the water, and last week he called on Fina to restrict the number of swimmers at events to ensure better supervision.

No minimum ratio of supervisors to swimmers is listed on the Fina website for Open Water Swimming Rules for 2009-2013. "It said in the rules that I read the first time that if there are 90 individuals in the water then there has to be at least five supervising individuals," Mr Shoulberg said.

Crippen took part in the UAE race to prepare for the Olympic qualifiers being held in Shanghai next year, Mr Shoulberg said.

"He said, 'The water conditions in Shanghai in 2011 will be extremely hot, I need to get a better understanding. To get a medal at the Olympics in 2012, I need experience'."

Crippen hoped to be the first American Olympic medallist in open water swimming, which was made an Olympic sport at Beijing in 2008.

* With additional reporting by Zoi Constantine